Modern material handlers

Some of the largest manufacturing and transportation operations in the country rely on the products and systems designed and built by Sturtevant-based Topper Industrial to move products and items within the assembly or shipping process.

Automotive manufacturers such as Chrysler, General Motors, Ford, Mercedes, Honda, Toyota and Kia use thousands of Topper’s products in their plants, as do companies like Sub-Zero, General Electric, Detroit Diesel, Cummins, Caterpillar, Fed Ex and Johnson Controls.

Topper makes hundreds of different products, but all are related to transportation within an assembly or shipping operation that either eliminates or minimizes the use of forklifts inside the plant.

“We have hundreds of different carts, because each plant has a unique application,” said Ed Brown, president of Topper. “But we have two main styles of carts – push carts and quad-steer carts that are primarily used for towing.

Topper’s push carts can also be towed, and can be customized with rotating tops, rollers, tilting platforms and many other options, allowing the company to create systems designed for each customer’s needs, Brown said. The company’s carts are designed to be moved by hand or towed by a tugger, a hand-controlled electronic towing device.

“(They can be used by) anybody who does assembly and wants to go fork truck free,” Brown said.

By using carts, manufacturers are able to develop flexible systems that are able to quickly move parts from receiving into production lines, Brown said. It also allows them to quickly change their production lines.

“The flexibility of a cart (system) is that if you change containers with suppliers, you don’t have to change installations,” Brown said. “And if you pull with a tugger, there are no tracks.”

The automotive market has given Topper some of its biggest orders – the company has produced thousands of carts for Chrysler plants across the U.S. And while domestic car companies are struggling, foreign car companies with domestic production have given suppliers like Topper a boost. The company recently won a large contract from Kia.

“Kia is our summer, and it could be our whole year,” Brown said.

The company also recently received a large order from Detroit Diesel, for a series of 10 different carts.

Topper does not just make carts – the company also designs and builds conveyors, standard containers that can work with any style of cart, as well as racks and pallets. The company is also a job shop for specialty manufacturing.

The company, founded in 1994, has its roots as a steel fabrication job shop. In the late 1990s, it began building conveyor systems, which led to some work with the Kenosha Chrysler engine plant, Brown said. That work led to relationships with many of the car company’s plants around the country.

“One of the Chrysler plants wanted to go fork truck free in 1999 or 2000 and we designed carts for them that would be pulled by tuggers,” he said. “Then Kenosha wanted to do it, which was our first big order, for 500 carts.”

Topper Industrial has about 40 employees now. As recently as last fall, the company had 80 workers. But because of softness in the automotive market, it began layoffs in February, ultimately idling 45 of its employees.

The company recently closed a satellite facility in Detroit, where it had 13 employees.

“We ran out of work, and there were no orders to be seen,” Brown said. “We were idle for the last three or four months. It just got too expensive.”

Topper recently brought five employees back from layoff. While Brown is optimistic about the company’s future, he is concerned there may still be some short-term pain to deal with.

“We think we have (turned the corner), but we might be in for another slowdown,” he said. “But there are a lot of new projects waiting for funding with Caterpillar and other (customers). Once things start taking off, it could go for everybody.”

Topper is also working now to further diversify its customer base.

“We are also looking to get into something other than material handling – alternate energy or energy reduction technologies,” Brown said.

Topper Industrial

1729 E. Frontage Road, Sturtevant

Industry: Material handling equipment for fork truck-free environments

Employees: 40


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